Education Ministry warns private firms not to plan youth Holocaust trips to Poland

Head of department that organizes now-suspended program threatens legal action, says state will not be able to provide security or help groups that encounter problems abroad

High school students participate in the March of the Living at Auschwitz in Poland, April 16, 2015. (Yossi Zeliger/ Flash90/ File)
High school students participate in the March of the Living at Auschwitz in Poland, April 16, 2015. (Yossi Zeliger/ Flash90/ File)

The Education Ministry on Sunday cautioned private organizations against organizing Holocaust heritage trips for school children in place of official government trips that have been canceled since June, thanks to a diplomatic dispute with Poland.

In a letter to private firms, Dudi Shokaf, manager of the youth missions to Poland, said that the state cannot provide security on such trips, and would not be able to assist travel groups if they encountered any issues abroad.

He said private organizations did not have the authority to send high school groups to Poland, warning of legal action if they were to go through with their plans.

“The ministry reserves the right to take all legal measures available to it against the relevant parties, the organizers of the delegations, service providers, and others,” the letter read.

The annual educational trips — which are attended by thousands of young Israelis — were suspended during the pandemic; in June, Israel said they would not resume because Poland’s right-wing government was trying to control the curriculum.

“They wanted to dictate what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed to be taught to Israeli children who go to Poland and that we cannot agree with,” then-foreign minister Yair Lapid said during a news conference.

Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz. (YouTube screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz charged that young Israelis were receiving a “negative image” of Poland, because of the armed guards accompanying the youth groups, the visits’ focus on the Holocaust only, and a lack of contact with Polish youth.

“There are also threads appearing [to suggest] that Poland is an antisemitic country and for that reason, it’s dangerous here,” Przydacz told Radio RMF24.

He said a new intergovernmental agreement should state in which cases guards with loaded weapons can be present. Warsaw has been seeking such a deal for months, Przydacz said.

Poland would also like young Israelis to meet with their Polish peers and understand their approach to Polish-Jewish history that spans many centuries.

In August, the Polish government said they had offered their alternative plan which would allow the trips to be restarted, but did not receive a response from Israel.

The Education Ministry said the program would not be renewed in the near future.

Poland was invaded and occupied by Adolf Hitler’s regime in 1939, and never had a collaborationist government. Members of Poland’s resistance and government-in-exile struggled to warn the world about the mass killing of Jews, and thousands of Poles risked their lives to help Jews.

An Israeli student on the March of the Living Tour in Auschwitz in 2011. Radical academics sometimes compare Israelis to Nazis. (Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
An Israeli student on the March of the Living Tour in Auschwitz in 2011. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Young Israelis traditionally travel to Poland in the summer between 11th and 12th grade to tour former Nazi camps in order to learn about the Holocaust and memorialize those murdered.

However, Holocaust researchers have collected ample evidence of Polish villagers who murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis, or Polish blackmailers who preyed on helpless Jews for financial gain. Six million Jews, including nearly all of Poland’s roughly 3 million Jews, were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, and major Nazi death camps were in Poland.

These dueling narratives have been a source of great tension between Israel and Poland, which otherwise have strong relations.

The trip has long been considered a milestone in Israeli education and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some 40,000 Israeli students participated each year. About 7,000 were registered to go this past summer, according to the Education Ministry.

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